Every year there are one or two players that kind of split the opinion of the LA Kings fanbase. While Nick Shore has been an extremely prominent player in this regard this season, there was another player who seemed to draw both admirers and critics alike.
We are talking about the Kings big hulking defenseman Brayden McNabb.
First off, who was Brayden McNabb this season exactly?
That is actually a good question, because it seemed like throughout the year even Darryl Sutter did not know.
At times his usage swung from top pairing with Drew Doughty, where he was drawing about 22 minutes a game, to a bottom pair defenseman playing between 10-14 minutes a game. The latter event seemed to be more common later in the year after the Kings acquired both Luke Schenn and Rob Scuderi. Whether the lessened minutes from McNabb was truly justified in order to give those minutes to Scuderi and Schenn is certainly debatable.
McNabb ran the gamut of usage, but managed to stay in the lineup for all but one LA Kings game this year (The very first one). He was a permanent fixture on the blueline bringing a steady blend of physical, aggressive hockey, but also a simple and efficient puck moving ability. He was, for lack of a better comparison perhaps, the Kings version of a Lidstrom era Niklas Kronwall for the Detroit Red Wings. While clearly the point totals are not similar, the comparison we are trying to make is in role. Kronwall was to Lidstrom/Rafalski/Prime Chelios/Schneider, what McNabb is starting to become for the Los Angeles Kings behind Doughty/Muzzin. The role has come with its ups and downs, risky plays, mistakes, and bad games, but overall Brayden McNabb has been a very important piece for this Kings team and should continue to be moving forward. He is also just coming off his 25th birthday, so there is plenty of time and room for growth.
There are lots of reasons to like the Saskatoon native, shrug off the critics if you already do like him, and perhaps come around to him if you are uncertain of his impact.
From the traditional eye test perspective, McNabb is a fun player to watch. He is big, he can skate (But still needs improvement there), he plays aggressive and physical, he can add usage to a penalty kill, and at times a little on the powerplay (Although this portion of his game has yet to come around fully). He has proven to be a pretty decent minute eater when he has to be. On the year he averaged 18:49 of time on ice, and that number probably would have pushed 20 had the acquisitions and usage of both Rob Scuderi and Luke Schenn never happened. We will get to his exact usage later, but his arch of usage was pretty startling.
He was 4th on the team in blocked shots, third amongst the team and first amongst defensemen in hits, and contributed 14 points from the backend. His outlet passes are generally safe, he has excellent gap control, and a good stick in the defensive zone. His punishing hits along the boards on opposing forwards were often heavy, and overall some of the biggest on the year. Players certainly have to think twice when entering with possession on his side of the ice. He does have the occasional brain cramp, and they generally come in a more catastrophic form given where he plays on the ice. A bad outlet usually leads to a bad goal. However, he does not handle the puck like a grenade, which is good, but he tends to perhaps hold the puck too long when making decisions. Urgency and decisiveness with the puck are things he could certainly work on. This can lead to some frustrating plays.
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All in all though, he played a very strong role this year, utilizing almost all of the tools in his tool box while still showing some upside in other areas of the game like puck moving and offensive upside. His outlets are of a fairly safe variety regularly, and he could push himself to take a few more risks when moving the puck up ice. However, that is a part of his game he often defers to his more offensive leaning partner, ala Drew Doughty. Wise move really.
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McNabb was not the analytics darling that perhaps Nic Shore or a vintage Jake Muzzin was/is, but he is a very good contributor in this aspect of the game. We talked a bit about his usage already, so let's go back to that first before diving into anything further.
His usage was all over the place for various reasons. In fact, pre All-Star game, McNabb was averaging 20:25 in ice time, and after he averaged 16:29. While averaging almost 22 minutes a night through the first three months of the season (And arguably THE BEST months of the season for the LA Kings), that average dipped significantly into the February and March months where Sutter seemingly lost confidence in the 25-year old rear guard, playing him down to fifth defenseman minutes with 15-16 a game on average. Many of these nights he saw less than 12 or 13 minutes, and was the least used Kings defenseman on the roster. Was there something going on with McNabb? Or was it simply the warm blanket effect of Rob Scuderi, whom of which suddenly was playing an upwards of 24 minutes a night? Or was McNabb playing his way out of that role?
Take a look at some rolling averages thanks to Corsica.Hockey
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Over a 15 game average, McNabb seemed to peak in mid December, fall in mid January, but sky rocket through the rest of the year. During the stretch run, night to night McNabb was one of the best possession performers on the Kings. While perhaps a slightly lessened usage might have helped stabilizing him, Sutter went into overkill by playing the young Dman only 12-14 minutes a night through the better part of two months.
In terms of pure shot suppression, McNabb had a positive downward arch almost all season. Meaning that for one reason or another he got better as the season progressed at a per 60 rate in stopping opponents from getting shots on net.
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And the great thing about him, from year to year he has had a trend of declining chances against.
2013-14 - 43.85
2014-15 - 37.07
2015-16 - 36.04
Opposing goals against at 5v5 have also trended downwards
2013-14 - 2.39
2014-15 - 2.31
2015-16 - 2.20
While he has played only two true seasons in the NHL so far (2014-15 and 2015-16) the early numbers are going in the right direction.
Some of that may have been due to who he was paired with.
McNabb and Doughty certainly were good together this year, holding a 60.4 Corsi For % and a 58.7 Goals For %. When separating McNabb from Doughty his stats plummeted to a 50.3 CF% and a 47.6 GF%. Suppression numbers went from a 42.05 up to a 59.01 CA60. That's pretty bad. Doughty's numbers, however, ALSO went in a negative direction without McNabb. While not as significant (60.2 -> 56.6, 42.05 -> 47.37), this still might lead to the idea that they were altogether a pairing that made each other better.
Herein lies the problem with WOWYs (W or W/O you) though. You have to look at who the player was playing with the most ASIDE from their top pairing. The player that McNabb played most with outside of Drew Doughty? Luke Schenn, who was a leaky partner to have opposite of you. Perspective.
This kind of leads us overall to where we are with Brayden McNabb. He is a really good Top 4 complimentary player. He is not Jake Muzzin, he is not Drew Doughty, but he is a very strong compliment player in terms of style and numbers to the Kings top defensemen. His aggressive and more measured game is something that opens up the ice for his more mobile and offensive oriented partners to do their thing. He can play the stay at home role, as long as it is with a partner who is also safe and intelligent in moving up ice. Pairing him with a player like Luke Schenn ended up being a death sentence to numbers. He saw very positive samples last season with Jamie McBain, and also surprisingly good overall numbers with Matt Greene as well.
In terms of entry and exit tracking, McNabb was third on the team in controlled exits from his zone at 83.2%. That was behind both Muzzin (83.7) and Doughty (88.4). He was also the second most aggressive defenseman on the team behind Jake Muzzin (9.29 zone entries denied per 60) in denying zone entries from the opposition (5.24 per 60). He also had the second best success rate on the team at clearing the zone without control at 78.1% (IE - pressured clearance, chip out, clearing the zone).
In terms of team relative stats, McNabb was also above average.
And finally, his zone starts were no more challenging or less challenging than that of Doughty or Muzzin.
All signs point to McNabb being, as already stated, a really good complimentary defenseman of the Top 4 variety. He was that this year, and the only thing that seemed to hold him back was some common coaching-young player trust issues and the inclusion of more players into the lineup (Which is a beast to explain in and of itself). At 25 years of age, and with an RFA status hanging on him this offseason, the Kings must re-sign him. He is of a perfect age to play a role with the Kings that he is already playing quite well for a very long time. A Doughty/McNabb pairing for 2016-17 would be a good jumping off point to the defensive group, especially with Muzzin and Martinez and potentially a young duo of Forbort and Gravel and a healthy Matt Greene behind them. The Kings cannot afford to lose him, and Kings fans should not be hoping the team moves away from him any time soon. Does he make errors? Yes. Are they costly? They can be. However, overall the good far outweighs the bad with the rugged, heavy hitting dman. This year he proved to be more consistent, take on more minutes, and do so with little negative impact to his overall play. In fact, he moved in the positive direction, which is huge.
Re-signing him is likely high on the list of things to do for the Kings this off-season. McNabb is a good defenseman, and fans should be happy he is a King.
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